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‘Crypto means cryptography’: the losing battle over a prefix - THE GUARDIAN

NOVEMBER 20, 2021

Renamed Crypto.com stadium is good news for cryptocurrency fanatics but strikes blow against cryptographers clinging to prefix

The stadium that is home to the Los Angeles Lakers is getting a new name: the Crypto.com Arena. The name reflects the arena’s new sponsorship agreement with a Singapore-based cryptocurrency trading platform. That may be good news for cryptocurrency fanatics – but perhaps not so much for another faction within the digital landscape: cryptographers.

Look up the word “crypto” in Webster’s dictionary, and you’ll see it refers to cryptography, which in turn is defined as “the computerized encoding and decoding of information”. Search “crypto” on Google, however, and you’ll see a host of top results pointing to cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum.

This lexical shift has weighed heavily on cryptographers, who, over the past few years, have repeated the rallying cry, “Crypto means cryptography,” on social media. T-shirts and hoodies trumpet the phrase and variations on it; there’s a website dedicated solely to clarifying the issue.

“‘Crypto’ for decades has been used as shorthand and as a prefix for things related to cryptography,” said Amie Stepanovich, executive director of Silicon Flatirons Center at the University of Colorado Law School and creator of the pro-cryptography T-shirts, which have become a hit at conferences. “In fact, in the term cryptocurrency, the prefix crypto refers back to cryptography.”

It’s often a losing battle, and that appears to have played out in the case of crypto.com itself.

Beginning in 1993, as the Verge reported, the crypto.com domain was owned by Matt Blaze, a cryptography expert who repeatedly rejected would-be buyers – even as the rise of cryptocurrency meant he could have made millions of dollars.

“I think calling cryptocurrencies ‘crypto’ is a poor choice, with bad consequences for both cryptography and cryptocurrencies,” he tweeted in 2018. Ultimately, however, the domain was sold, and now if you go to Crypto.com you’ll see a giant video of Matt Damon indicating that investing in cryptocurrencies is roughly as courageous as scaling an icy cliff or blasting into space.

Yet there remains an internecine feud among the tech savvy about the word.

As Parker Higgins of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, who has spent years involved in cryptography activism, pointed out, the cryptography crowd is by nature deeply invested in precision – after all, designing and cracking codes is an endeavor in which, if you get things “a little wrong, it can blow the whole thing up”.

There are global debates over both cryptography – for instance, questions over whether chat services should offer “backdoors” that skirt encryption – and the regulation of cryptocurrency. “There is a need to distinguish between those two areas to avoid absolutely foreseeable confusion”, Stepanovich said, a particular issue when it comes to “legislators and regulators who are not always subject matter experts in these areas, even if they are charged with overseeing them”.

Higgins agreed. “Crypto as shorthand for cryptography really was in widespread use. You could talk about crypto even on Capitol Hill and people would know what you were talking about – that really did hold a lot of, forgive this, but currency.”

And at a time when many still aren’t sure what cryptocurrency is, the confusion over the terms just makes things muddier. “Strong cryptography is a cornerstone of the way that people talk about privacy and security, and it has been under attack for decades” by governments, law enforcement, and “all sorts of bad actors”, Higgins said. For its defenders, confusion over terminology creates yet another challenge.

Stepanovich acknowledged the challenge of opposing the trend, but said the weight of history is on her side. “The study of crypto has been around for ever,” she said. “The most famous code is known as the Caesar cipher, referring to Julius Caesar. This is not new.” Cryptocurrency, on the other hand, is a relatively recent development, and she is not ready to concede to “a concept that may or may not survive government regulation”.

She remains invested in the linguistic debate because it’s so closely linked to policy. “Allowing people to develop and use encryption is hugely important in protecting human rights, privacy and protecting the basis on which cryptocurrency has been built,” Stepanovich said.

“We all have hills we are willing to die on – this might be mine.”


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